Is there a ‘cut-off age’ for learning languages?

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By Antonella Sorace & Thomas Bak

The idea that there is a critical period for language learning has been around for a long time, at least since Eric Lenneberg’s 1967 book “Biological Foundations of Language”, which proposed that the acquisition of a first language can be successful only if children are exposed to it in early infancy. The concept was then naturally extended to second language (L2) acquisition, given the much greater variation in outcomes among adult language learners. However, conclusive evidence for the biological nature of child-adult differences and for a well-defined cut-off point has not been found.

At the University of Edinburgh, we study speakers at the very upper end of the L2 proficiency range, who can pass for native speakers at least at some levels: the very existence of these speakers shows that it is possible for adults to be very successful at learning a second language later in life. But why do we find so much more variation? There are many different factors contributing to this, including a shorter time scale and the fact that full immersion in the L2 environment can’t be taken for granted for adults in the same way as it can for children. There is evidence that multilingualism helps: the more languages are known, the easier it becomes to learn more. And recent research also shows that the brain of much older adults responds very well to the challenge of learning a new language, even if high proficiency levels are not reached.

Also, the “critical period” might be different for different aspects of language. It is difficult for an adult to learn new sounds to a level of being perceived as a “native speaker”, in fact, this is the case even within the same language in terms of dialects and local accents. In contrast, the rules of grammar can be learned later and we continue to learn new vocabulary throughout our lives, as new words emerge in all languages. Importantly, the fact that with age it might get more difficult to learn some aspects of language (as is the case with many other activities, such as engaging in sports or playing musical instruments) should not discourage us from doing it. On the contrary, learning languages might be one of the best ways of keeping our mind agile in later life!

Useful links

Here’s when it gets more difficult to learn a new language, according to science

Students should learn second language to prevent dementia in later life

Research participants needed: Japanese or Spanish native speakers for story continuation study

Hi my name is Carine and I’m a researcher looking for participants to complete a Story continuation study. The study should take less than 60 minutes to complete and you will be compensated £8.  You will complete 3 language tasks, where you will have to read some sentences, or words, and either write short responses or answer questions about them.

To participate you MUST:
– Be a NATIVE speaker of JAPANESE or SPANISH (from Spain)
– Have NOT previously completed a story continuation study
– Be 18 or older
– Have lived in the UK for AT LEAST 3 YEARS
– Have HIGH or FLUENT proficiency of English as a second language (and no ability to speak any other languages)

If you’re interested in completing the study you can sign up at http://blake.ppls.ed.ac.uk/~s1153197/ssu/?exp=SCEN

If you have any questions, you can email us at pragmaticslabedinburgh@gmail.com

University of Edinburgh

Video: Language Learning in the USA

Bilingualism Matters was delighted to be involved in the National Languages Networking meeting in Glasgow this week. The meeting was an opportunity for educators from across Scotland to explore how we can develop language teaching in our schools, with a focus on the “1 + 2” approach to language learning here in Scotland (more details on 1 + 2 are available on the SCILT website).

As part of the programme presented by Education Scotland, which included a talk by Bilingualism Matters Director Antonella Sorace on ‘Second language learning: benefits and challenges’, the co-director of our new Bilingualism Matters branch in California, Prof. Judith Kroll, recorded a special presentation on the current context for language learning in the USA. In her presentation, she introduced recent research findings on the benefits of language learning for brain development. The full presentation can be viewed on YouTube.

Barcelona Summer School on Bilingualism and Multilingualism

Blog post by Eva-maria Schnelten

In September, the University Pompeu Fabra in Barcelona hosted the Barcelona Summer School on Bilingualism and Multilingualism, a renowned school for postgraduate students and researchers to gather, present and discuss the newest developments in their respective fields.

A few members of Bilingualism Matters Edinburgh were able to attend this year, promoting their research either in an oral presentation or a poster session.

The overarching theme was, as the name suggests, research concerning bilingualism and multilingualism: ranging from neuro-cognitive factors and the implications for ageing and health to the sociolinguistic development in bilingual children. The talks and posters provided an interesting and broad overview of the work that has been conducted in the field. [Read more…]

Myths and Misconceptions in Multilingualism

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Post by Dr Thomas Bak, Co-director of Bilingualism Matters

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Berlin Wall and lifting of travel restrictions, Vienna become a favourite destination for Eastern Europeans keen to buy hitherto unavailable Western goods. My West German friend Wilhelm recalled a conversation with an East German colleague while looking at the frantic markets. “Poor Viennese”, said the East German, “those Eastern Europeans will buy everything and leave them with nothing”. “Lucky Viennese”, answered Wilhelm, “they are doing the business of their lifetime”. Obviously, their comments reflected different economic reality under which they grew up, but they illustrate rather well the general contrast between “limited resource” and “added value” models. [Read more…]

How do people agree on when to switch between languages?

Research Digest by Michela Bonfieni

A recent study reveals how bilinguals who speak the same two languages implicitly agree with each other on when to switch between their languages. The study also shows that switching between languages in the middle of a conversation is as natural and systematic as any other aspect of language.

Bilingual speakers often use bits of their two languages in their sentences. For example, speaking about taxes and savings, two Spanish-English speakers may go about like this:

Speaker 1: “qué dinero?” (‘what money?’)

Speaker 2: “el dinero ese que nos van a dar with the taxes.” (‘the money that they’re going to give us with the taxes.’)

This behaviour is very frequent among bilinguals who live in contexts where both their languages are used. Researchers on bilingualism refer to this as ‘code-switching’, and have dedicated a lot of attention to understand the way it works. [Read more…]

Short-term language learning aids mental agility

Mental agility can be boosted by even a short period of learning a language, suggests a new study by Bilingualism Matters researchers.

Students aged 18 – 78 were tested on their attention levels before and after a one-week intensive Gaelic course on the Isle of Skye. Researchers compared these results with those of people who completed a one week course that did not involve learning a new language, and with a group who did not complete any course.

At the end of the week, participants on the language course performed significantly better than those who did not take any course. This improvement was found for learners of all ages, from 18 to 78 years. There was no difference between those who took a non-language course and those who took no course.

Researchers also found that these benefits could be maintained with regular practice. Nine months after the initial course, all those who had practised five hours or more per week improved from their baseline performance. [Read more…]

Skye is the limit – or, the power of mad ideas

Dr Thomas Bak Thomas H Bak is a reader in Human Cognitive Neuroscience at the University of Edinburgh. In addition to his work with Bilingualism Matters, he is a member of the Centre for Cognitive Ageing & Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the Centre for Clinical Brain Sciences (CCBS).

Have you ever had an idea that seemed to you great but scarily mad, something that really excited you but you didn’t dare to share even with your closest friends? Well, that’s how I felt two years ago, when it suddenly crossed my mind that we could test attention in people attending a one-week Gaelic course on the Isle of Skye. The idea did not come out of nothing: by then, we had already analysed the data from a study subsequently published in Cognition [1]. There we found that first year students of modern languages and of other humanities (English literature, history etc) performed equally well in a test of attentional switching at the beginning of their studies. However, by the end of the fourth year the language students, by then quite fluent in their chosen language, outperformed their colleagues from other faculties. [Read more…]

New funded project on multilingualism

We are delighted to announce that Bilingualism Matters deputy director Dr Thomas Bak is Co-Investigator on a major new project on multilingualism.

The four year project, “Multilingualism: Empowering Individuals, Transforming Societies (MEITS)”, will seek to understand multilingualism through a range of interdisciplinary research themes – from literature, film and culture, to diversity and social cohesion. Dr Thomas Bak will lead a strand on cognition, health and well-being. The researchers will cover languages taught as part of a modern languages curriculum in the UK (e.g. French, German, Mandarin, Spanish), European minority languages (e.g. Catalan, Irish, Scottish Gaelic, Ukrainian), and community languages (e.g. Cantonese, Polish, Punjabi).

The project is funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council as part of their Open World Research Initiative which aims to raise the profile and visibility of Modern Languages and the crucial role they play in society.

More information:
Find out more about the AHRC-funded Open World Research Initiative, including other funded projects: Open World Research Initiative

Bilingualism: what about dialects?

Commonly, when thinking about bilingualism our first thought goes to people who grew up in a family speaking more than one standard language… But how about the case of people who use both a standard language, such as English or Italian, as well as a local dialect? This is a very common situation in many countries around the world.

From the linguistic point of view, regional dialects are just as rich and complex as standard languages, even if, in many cases, they have similar vocabularies, grammars, and sounds. But from a historical and administrative point of view, standard languages and dialects have very different statuses, and this is often reflected in the different contexts in which each is used. For example, the standard language may be encouraged at school while the local variant may be used in the home. This difference in statuses, together with the linguistic similarities, means that many people may overlook the bilingual experience of those who also speak a dialect. In other words, they are not considered bilingual at all. [Read more…]